The title tells only half the story — the point of this narrative has, through 85 years, been “A star is born, so a star must die” — and its belief in a world with no stability, only upward and downward trajectories, makes it perfect for an industry in which success and failure have long been measured weekly and visibly, and in which the personal and the public can become indistinguishable.
Over the last almost-a-century, some of the toughest-minded writers ever to brush up against Hollywood — Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner Jr., Moss Hart, John Gregory Dunne, and Joan Didion among them — have taken cracks at this script, and one could write a history of the ebb and flow of stardom just based on its casting. The first attempt at the story, a sort of beta test titled What Price Hollywood?, was directed by George Cukor in 1932, and is probably best remembered as the first movie to make a plot point out of the winning of an Academy Award, a ritual that was then just four years into its existence (the film calls it an “Academy Medal”). What Price Hollywood? took place in a recognizable world of real stars — it begins with a young woman (Constance Bennett, now little remembered but then one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses) kissing a fan-magazine photograph of Clark Gable. The drama was said to have been based on two real stories, one involving the silent-film star Colleen Moore, who had propped up the career of her alcoholic husband by making him her producer, and the other involving a young director named Tom Forman who shot himself in 1926 after his career had deteriorated.
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